The Grading of Narcissism
Children can be both delicate and rugged at the same time. As elementary school children they are brutally honest with everyone around them, unless they perceive a truthful answer may land them in trouble. When dealing with each other, children will not hold back and often they will say something harmful with no malice intended. Children are also very perceptive when it comes to false praise. They are able to tell when someone is showering them with frivolous compliments and when someone means it. Why it is that many schools believe they must bolster children with unearned acclaim is beyond me. This act will only serve to have several negative impacts on a child’s present and future social life. Taking time for self-esteem classes will also hamper a student’s learning. Time that could be spent learning and reinforcing practical learning basics is instead vested in classes that serve to promote egocentrism and narcissism. Schools should be more concerned with a child’s academia as opposed to his feelings. Many studies show there is no correlation between truant behavior and low self-esteem. Let children develop their own sense of worth and self-esteem.
As Carl Rogers said, “As no one else can know how we perceive, we are the best experts on ourselves.”
We should let children be themselves and discover who they are, not force it upon them.
Carl Rogers said that a child has two basic needs when it came to self-esteem. Children need a positive regard from other people and positive self-worth. He believed a child developed self-worth during early childhood and it came from the interaction between the child and his parents. As the child aged, this view shifted to include significant others. These people form a child’s view of himself. Positive regard comes from how other people interacted with us. It is the time a person realizes his full potential that he is fully functional and becomes self-actualizing. As a good and creative creature, people only fail to reach self-actualization when an external influence or poor self-worth overrides growth. Schools want to implement programs to ensure children achieve good self-worth and treat others well so as to lower the chance of poor external influences.
The only way to achieve self-esteem is with effort and accomplishment. False praise is not effective. As has been stated, children know when they are being showered with unearned accolades. The false praise will make the children distrustful of those who give them the praise. It will also give the children a false sense of accomplishment, an inflated ego, and entitlement they have not achieved. Distrust in primary caregivers and close friends will skew a child’s perception and may cause the very effects the programs were designed to combat. It is only when a child is praised for a true accomplishment that he will feel the sense of pride he needs to achieve the self-actualization Carl Rogers describes as making a fully functional person. Children compare themselves to others (peers) and assess how well they measure up to society’s standards. They also compare themselves to their own internal standards of success. If schools warp this measuring stick for children and their peers, children will not measure up.
Dr. David Shaffer, M.D., Director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical School (New York City) has a few things to say on the subject of false praise. He believes that total self-esteem can reduce motivation in children. He says,
We know that anxiety in small doses is a powerful, motivating force, and that a lack of concern and indifference to the opinion of others can actually be quite handicapping.
Without any kind of motivation, children will not set goals for themselves or put any effort toward making themselves better people. False praise, when reinforced will create a child who is very narcissistic. A person can have a healthy dose of narcissism, but too much can create a sense of entitlement, something prevalent in today’s society. Healthy narcissism gives us our confidence and allows us to judge others fairly. Judging others is part of Rogers’ positive regard needed for proper growth. If a person cannot be judged fairly by others, then his self-worth will be skewed as well. When a child’s mind is tilted to an inflated ego, he will have no regard for others and expect those around him to continue the false praise. Self-esteem programs that promote the fluff of narcissism can create children who need the constant reinforcement they became accustomed to in the program. Children who receive false praise and do not work for any type of accolades will crumble at the first sign of real criticism from a person in authority. They will not be able to handle any kind of negative feedback. In contrast, the child who has worked hard and achieved everything he earned can be comfortable and even shine in the praise he receives. They will be able to take the feedback they get, good or bad, and build off of it to grow as a person.
Many of the programs cite bad behavior, drug/substance abuse, teen pregnancy, and other pre-adult misbehaviors as a reason for the program’s existence. The programs help raise academic excellence as well as personal values and self-esteem. However, contrary research exists. Mecca, Smelser, and Vasconcellos, in their book The Social Importance of Self-Esteem based their findings on research done by many psychologists and sociologists from the University of California. Using the findings, they could say with confidence that “there is NO correlation between self-esteem and academic performance.” They could also find no conclusive evidence of a correlation between self-esteem and teen pregnancy rates, self-esteem and alcohol/drug use, and self-esteem and child abuse.
Self-esteem programs have spread through public and some Catholic schools since the late 1980s and have continued to grow. They are praised by their supporters but many others say the programs have a negative impact on children. Instead of building a child’s self-esteem, the programs promote self-absorption and as stated earlier, narcissism. According to Elliott and Smith the programs fail because they rely too heavily on empty praise to raise the self-esteem of children. It has been shown that children see through the empty praise and the reinforcement of it can cause more lasting damage than no praise. Smith says that two important things for a child to learn are delayed gratification and frustration tolerance. A child must learn to work for everything, judging others fairly, and being appreciated for who he is.
The programs have a negative impact on teachers as well as students. Edward Wynne, Professor of Education at the University of Illinois (Chicago Circle campus), and Kevin Ryan, Professor of Education at Boston University say the programs put unreasonable pressures on teachers. In their recently published book Reclaiming Our Schools, they note:
The self-esteem movement puts a false and infectious pressure on teachers. They are more and more expected to keep students feeling good about themselves. In other eras, teachers were expected to provide pupils with an environment and educational opportunity to grow and achieve.
This urge to push ‘feel good’ attitudes on children can force grade inflation and a lack of discipline. It is difficult for a teacher to praise a child for being average then give him a low mark when he does not fulfill the requirements of an assignment. This creates a society of hypocrites and an air of confusion. Little Johnny is told by his teacher what a wonderful person he is but has to ask why he did not get an A on his assignment.
One component of the self-esteem programs, especially programs like Project Self-Esteem states that a child will not do well in school if he does not feel good about himself. Sandy McDaniel, one of the creators of Project Self-Esteem says that
Our common concern was that the schools overall weren’t attacking learning problems as an attitude problem first. You can’t teach a child who thinks he’s dumb. If his feeling about himself is it’s hopeless to learn, you can’t teach him. If you want him to learn, you need to go in and work with him on that (negative) feeling.
However, a 1990 study from Affective Education shows different. The study measured the performance of students in America compared to the performance of students in five other countries, one of them being Korea. The math scores of the Americans were the lowest of the six whereas the Koreans were first. The test asked whether or not the children believed that they were good at math. Americans answered 68% that they were good at math while only 26% of the Koreans, who scored the highest in math grades, said they were good at math. So the question remains, does a child need to feel special to learn or can a child learn with hard work and dedication?
Project Self-Esteem seems to think children need to feel unique and have their egos fluffed to make their way through life. The program stresses moral relativism (situation ethics) and self-interest as a way to grow and develop. Self-interest, not social acceptance is the normal behavior. Much of the program focuses on feelings, beliefs, and attitudes, something that could be interpreted as a form of psychological testing and treatment. This is one aspect of the program that has parents in a bit of an uproar. Some parental groups argue that the program violates religious and privacy rights. They are unhappy the program was implemented without consent of parents and the school board. There were many other complaints about the program as well, but when the program was presented to licensed psychologists, they agreed that some portions were very similar to some of the exercises they used, such as role playing and guided imagery. According to school rules, any program involving psychology or beliefs and values must garner parent permission first. McDaniel argues that it is not psychological treatment. A quick look at the Project Self-Esteem Facebook page shows they advocate religion, Christianity in particular; another subjected hotly debated in schools.
Children are our most precious commodity. They are the future and need to be prepared to handle any issues that come up. We need to ensure they are physically and mentally ready. This onus to prepare children is not just the responsibility of parents, but of everyone who comes in contact with the children. The problem lies in how is this to be done. Not enough praise and the child is neglected. Too much praise and the child is spoiled. Schools need to be the educators of children, not the sole ego boosters. Giving children false praise with self-esteem programs may make a child feel special, but like the cliché says, when everyone is special, no one is.
Paul Gross, MFTC
411 Lakewood Circle Drive
Colorado Springs, CO 80910